The idea was for Noah Marshall to learn slowly as a sophomore last season behind senior quarterback Trevor Sudbay.
The safety net was removed when Sudbay suffered a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the season at Milford.
Marshall, who getting some snaps, was suddenly Hartland’s No. 1 quarterback — ready or not.
Predictably, Marshall had his share of sophomore moments, but he also showed flashes of the potential the Eagles’ coaches saw by putting him on the varsity in the first place.
It was all part of the sometimes-painful growing process that Hartland hopes will pay off this season.
“I’m next guy up, right?” Marshall said. “So they just put me in there.
“I was working out in the offseason with the varsity people. The speed of the game is a lot different than passing leagues. When I got in there, everything was just amazing how much faster it was. It was a lot tougher to adjust.”
A microcosm of Marshall’s season came in the fourth quarter of that game at Milford. He threw a potentially crippling interception late in the game, but a fumble on the return gave Hartland new life. Marshall completed passes of 13 and 22 yards on the ensuing drive, putting the Eagles in a position to win 23-22 on a 30-yard field goal by Spencer Hayes with 7.9 seconds left.
Marshall wound up 45-for-100 for 499 yards, three touchdowns and nine interceptions. He had more success as a runner, gaining 237 yards and scoring four touchdowns on 52 carries.
He feels like a different player as he approaches his second season on the varsity.
“I have a lot more confidence in my own ability and my ability to hit guys,” Marshall said. “Everything’s slowing down for me. It’s making it a lot easier for me. Working with these guys last year, they know I’m the man for the job this year. They give me their trust. I like that. It gives me confidence.”
With a young quarterback who went straight from freshman football to the varsity, Hartland didn’t have much of an air attack last season. The Eagles had 79 percent of their yards on the ground last season, despite trailing in most games during a 3-6 season.
“It’s Noah’s second year, and he has a lot more confidence,” senior center Patrick Evans said. “We all believe in him. We can throw the ball around and we’ll still have that running attack. We’ll be a balanced offense. Hopefully we can get some first downs and put some drives together.”
Just as important as Marshall’s experience as the signal caller is the postseason experience that senior defensive lineman Jake Economou and senior safety Brett Oliver bring to the team. They are the last holdovers from the 2012 squad which went 8-1 and won the KLAA West championship before losing a 21-15 decision in the first round of the playoffs to eventual state Division 1 runnerup Detroit Catholic Central.
“The team my sophomore year was honestly the best team I’ve ever been on,” said Economou, who had 61 tackles and four sacks last year. “We’ve just got to get that back, being a team that’s all together and not just individuals.”
Oliver said he hopes to take some of the leadership lessons from the seniors on the 2012 team into this season.
“With (quarterback) Stephen Milarch and some true leaders, their vibes just came off on everyone and you learned from them,” said Oliver, who had 96 tackles and two interceptions last season.
Hartland has made the playoffs in the last three even-numbered years, but had losing records the following seasons. Based on that pattern, the Eagles are on schedule for a return to the postseason, but it’s not just going to fall into their laps.
“We’ve said all year that our playoff run starts at home on Aug. 28 against Grosse Pointe North,” Hartland coach Brian Savage said. “Howell was one game away from making the playoffs last year. We could have easily had six teams on our schedule who made the playoffs last year. That’s how it’s going to be with the league that we’re in and the top programs we’re playing. You’re always going to race great opponents, but that’s a true test. In our league, if you make the playoffs, you typically win a few games and make a little run.”
With Marshall and 2014 graduates Austin Pierce and Sudbay getting most of the touches on offense, the Eagles don’t have many players who are accustomed to having the ball in their hands on the varsity level. Ryan McRobb had 24 carries for 109 yards and two touchdowns as a backup running back. Tight end Nathan Skene is the leading returning receiver with 12 catches for 116 yards and a touchdown last season.
The other offensive players with starting experience are Evans at center, Jared Gohl at tackle, Max Cadman at running back and Spencer Hayes at receiver. Hayes will also kick and punt.
Hartland could be strong against the run, with five of its six returning defensive starters playing in the front seven. Economou, and Andy Maschke return on the line, with Alex Vydick, Ben Quella and Aaron Laird back at linebacker. Oliver returns at safety.
“Our defensive line, especially with Andy and Jake up front, they’re definitely some of our strongest kids,” Savage said. “Jake’s a great wrestler. He takes that onto the football field and does a great job using the skills he picked up there. We’re going to see a lot of teams run the ball. We’re definitely going to need to count on those guys.”
Hartland has only two sophomores on the varsity in offensive lineman Hayden Huttula and defensive back Jack Slavin. The Eagles had eight sophomores play varsity football last season.
“Our JV coach is a little happier this year,” Savage said. “Sometimes having too many (sophomores) is not a great thing. It’s nice to be able to keep classes together as much as possible.”
The 2012 team, led by a strong senior class, had only two sophomores. That’s one of a few similarities that Savage sees between the Eagles’ last playoff team and the squad that will take the field for the first time on Thursday night.
“This group reminds me a lot of that 2012 team as far as they’re always at whatever we have going on, whether it’s camps or passing leagues,” Savage said. “It’s a group of kids that wants to be successful, shows up to everything and is always willing to put the time in. They have what it takes, that part of it, to make another run at the playoffs.”
COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF
■ SUNDAY: Brighton
■ MONDAY: Fowlerville
■ TUESDAY: Pinckney
■ TODAY: Hartland
■ THURSDAY: Howell